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09. Case Study: Food Banks


Twitter For Food


Landscape and Methodology

Food banks provide us a good snap-shot of the overall landscape of non-profits in the United States.  In the last year, food bank use has increase 30 percent and here in Washington State, ten percent of our citizens struggle with “food insecurity” – basically, their next meal is not secured.  Even more than most non-profits, food banks deal with immediate pressing needs of their client base.  A decrease in donations has dire and immediate consequences: people go hungry. 

Food banks struggle with the core communication issues that can plauge all volunteer- and donation-based organizations.  Because of the mission-based messaging, the “story” of an organization can get old easily; traditional appeals rely primarily on calls to action, which can lead to audience fatigue.  Because the media typically feels that there is nothing ‘new’ about hunger issues, food banks have difficulty landing stories on a regular basis, and can easily slip from the public consciousness, and only be covered by traditional media during the holidays or  when dire emergency strikes.  However, these organizations rely on the community even more than other organizations. If local donations dry up, food banks close.   

After an exhaustively researching food banks through WeFollow, searching the followers of other hunger-related organizations and systematically researching all food banks on a Google search “Food Banks Twitter” I found the most well-designed, easy-to-follow and content-rich accounts.  From those, I chose six organizations which represent a cross-section of circumstances.   To investigate the difference between Twitter in urban areas “hotspots” I examined @sffoodbank and contrasted that with @hpfoodbank which covers an expansive, rural area where Twitter use is not as prevalent. To investigate how Twitter is being used in less-affluent urban areas, I researched two wonderful Twitter accounts out of Detroit (which in September 2009, unemployment had reached 15.3 percent).  The accounts @gleaners and @DADiaperBank were not only great examples of Twitter use, but showed how the technology could be used to penetrate areas saturated with need.  @DADiaperBank was also a fantastic case study of a months-old organization relying on Twitter as its primary outreach method.  This was in nice contrast to the other organizations which have been open for 35 plus years.  Representing food banks in ‘average’ areas are @vegfoodbank and @2ndHarvest.

In typical ‘can-do’ innovation of the non-profit world, Food Banks across the country are turning Twitter’s 140 characters into daily installments of a long-form documentary, featuring the excitement, conviction and passion of the participants in mission-based organization.  Rather than seeing the two line posts as a limitation, development directors, executive directors and media experts are savoring the ability to engage readers with compelling accounts of their work, bringing us closer to the daily triumphs and challenges of feeding hungry Americans.  At no other time have community-based organizations been able to broadcast so openly, frequently and effectively.


Twitter can serve as the great equalizer, providing the same tools to a one-woman diaper bank as it does a multi-national technology firm.  In this new media arena, ingenuity, creativity, passion and honesty rule.  With just 140 characters, a bio, and an avatar, organizations can introduce themselves to new audiences, build coalitions and engage in a daily conversation with thousands of interested listeners. Food Banks are an insight into how non-profit organizations are using technology and the six organizations highlighted in this chapter were chosen because they represent a snapshot of today’s food bank.  They are: urban and rural; serving affluent communities and those with depression-age unemployment; forty years and four months old; cautious and experimental; teams of one and teams of 100.  Each has taken their unique resources and style to harness the Power of  Twitter in order to engage their community and network with colleagues across the world. 


Each organization has also faced similar questions on the road to Twitterville, and have had to map out the path for themselves, their bosses and their board of directors.


Should We Try Out This Thing Called ‘Twitter’?


For Gayle Keck, Media Relations Manager at the San Francisco Food Bank, Twitter’s value was brought into focus thanks to food blogger, Amy Sherman.  Ms. Sherman tweeted about her participation in the food bank’s Hunger Challenge, where she was required to only spend one dollar per meal.“Tyson Food was a follower of Amy’s,” said Ms. Keck. “They wanted to recognize what she was doing and make a donation to our food bank.”  Inspired by Ms. Sherman’s story, Tyson used their own website to begin a challenge:  for every comment made about hunger in the Bay Area, they would make a donation of 100 pounds of food.  In just a few days, they had pledged 200,000 pounds of much-needed protein rich food.  “A lot of the word was spread by Twitter,” recalled Ms. Keck. “It caught my attention.”


Ms. Keck, began her own personal Twitter account, in order to test the site and to be able to address concerns of her organization “There is a little bit of caution, especially among non-profits: what’s the message going to be, who’s going to manage it?”  Through her own account, she gained familiarity with the “Twitter-verse,” talked with other users and slowly became accustomed the site’s specialized online etiquette.


“Once I learned what worked,” she said, “I felt more comfortable starting a really low-key account for the food bank.”  This ‘soft launch’ test account garnered a following shortly after release, and eventually was re-named @sffoodbank and publicized broadly.


In Edmonton, Alberta, Tamara Stecyk was also facing a board of directors who were skeptical of social media.  “Their main questions were: ‘What is it?’; ‘How much time will it take?’; and ‘What are you going to say?’” recalled Ms. Stecyk, who was hired because of her strong social media skills. A power point presentation to her board of directors, detailing the benefits of social media sites, including Facebook, LinkedIn and, of course, Twitter, sold her executive team  on the benefits of the new media world.  After addressing their concerns, @yegfoodbank was established.


For other organizations, the initial hesitation isn’t always as strong.  “There was no resistance at all,” recalled Zack Wilson, who tweets for the High Plains Food Bank in Amarillo, Texas.  “The overall opinion was, ‘Well, if you can do it and you want to do it – go for it! Let’s try it!’”




Days after bringing up the idea, the first @hpfoodbank tweet was sent.  “It was simple concept, it couldn’t hurt us,” said Mr. Wilson.  “We started [using Twitter] just to promote events. In the past few months, we’ve begun posting about local, national and regional news items about hunger.”


This ‘simple concept’ has made a large impact on the High Plains Food Bank, which services 29 counties in the Texas Panhandle and South Plains areas, much of which is rural. “It’s an unlimited way to get our message out,” states Mr. Wilson. “In 2010 it will be the primary communication method to press and community.  Twitter has really allowed us to get into people’s living room or when they are sitting in the doctor’s office and flipping on their i-phone.  People check their Twitter feed more than email, or even picking up the phone.”
What’s The Message Going to Be?


Tweets consist of whatever an organization has always been saying, only now, with more frequency and using all the communication tools available to engage the senses: text, audio, video and photography.  Twitter’s ease and frequency invites creativity and provides a straightforward way to publicize amazing feats that might otherwise go unrecognized.  A week of tweets could  highlight a star staff member who received a conference scholarship; recognize the dedication of 93-year-old Joe Amato who has volunteered with Second Harvest for seven years; or marvel at the generosity of Phoebe, a five-year-old girl who raised $4,000 for the food bank as part of a pre-school project.   The powerful stories which make up the soul of a food bank can now be broadcast daily.


“I am a believer in the power of story-telling and the power of stories.” said Poppy Pembroke, Communications Manager for Second Harvest Food Bank which serves California’s Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.  “In traditional media it’s always ‘What’s the hook?’”   With Twitter, she noted, all narratives have validity.   And with that attitude, great content is everywhere.  “What we do is interesting, who volunteers is interesting,” she said.  “We have a lot of stories to tell.  The first person I run into has a story.  Like a truck driver for instance; there’s always a story there!”


As her handle, @2ndharvest, grows in popularity, Ms. Pembroke is encouraged that other employees are beginning to share their stories with her team more regularly.  Recently, the volunteer manager mentioned that a group of Target employees were all decked out in matching shirts as they sorted green peppers and plums in the warehouse.   The photos of smiling, engaged volunteers now graces the Flickr page and made for a wonderfully engaging, content-rich Twitter post.  Another favorite tweet came that day as the Director of Marketing and Communications traced the route of a celery delivery with a reporter.  “She saw plum trees on the farm, and asked ‘Are these the same plums from this morning?’ And they were!  It was a great way to bring it all together.”


More than highlighting exceptional volunteers and donors, Twitter feeds are also being used to change perceptions of food bank service (no, they don’t just serve processed food) and dispel myths about the face of hunger.  “There is an old stereotype that the food bank is feeding people under a bridge,” commented Ms. Pembroke.  In reality, “it’s less than 10 percent who are homeless.  It’s really working families and the working poor.”


“There is no peace in the head if there is no peace in the stomach.” — Jean-Bertrand Aristide 9:11 AM Jul 29th


By constantly sharing stories and statistics about people affected by the current economic climate, she sees a change in the attitudes toward the food bank and its recipients.  “Just a few years ago, no one would talk to us, or have their pictures taken,” she recalled.  “People are much more willing to talk to us [now]; they are not as ashamed of their situations.  It’s just what’s happening.  Twitter helps tell their story. “   For her, the most important message to clients is, “You are not alone.”


Food banks across the country are also using Twitter to educate their communities about the existing safety net they never envisioned needing.   “We have put out tweets to refer people to resources,” said Anne Schenk, Director of Communications for Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan.  “Food stamps are underutilized in neighborhoods that have been solidly middle class.  Less than 50 percent of the people eligible for food stamps in suburban areas are using them. We have been using Twitter to raise awareness of their options.”


In short and sweet posts she links to a New York Times article about a group of people in Florida who are running out of unemployment benefits, but links mostly to Michigan news.    “In the Detroit area there are lots of stories about local hunger, it’s really not that hard.”


Who is Going to Read It?


As always, anyone who will listen!  And the role of a community manager, sometimes known as “the office twitter gal” (or guy!), is to explore the Twitter-verse to find a community of like-minded and interested supporters.  “Have fun, meet people,” advises Marybeth Levine, the one-woman wonder behind the recently launched Detroit Area Diaper Bank.  She advocates re-tweeting, actively reading tweets and links of those you follow and nurturing relationships on Twitter: “People will value you if you are relationship oriented. It’ll pay off in spades.”


Especially at the beginning, leverage the strengths of your local community, whatever that might be.  For San Francisco Food Bank, a thriving restaurant scene has become a real boon to the organization.  “In San Francisco there is a real history of chefs working with food banks,” explained Ms. Keck.  One example is celebrity chef Tyler Florence. “Just because he’s following the food bank,” said, “we have received a lot of followers.”


Detroit’s Gleaners Food Bank also benefits from a wealth of supporters in the restaurant industry as well as “‘foodies,’ chefs, nutritionists and people who are passionate about food. “  Realizing this natural connection, Ms. Shenk is leveraging her Twitter following to create a dialogue outside the traditional ‘charity’ or ‘food bank’ world.   “I certainly do think it’s given another avenue for people who love food to share their opinions” noted Ms. Schenk. ” It’s contributing a whole consciousness-raising about local foods and community gardening and food security issues. We have conversations, a pretty good two-way street, with people that we wouldn’t have had with them seeing an ad or being on our site.”


The High Plains Food Bank has no expectation for a celebrity chef but monitors feedback from press, foundation, local media, and is especially validated by a “Hey we saw you on Twitter” from people in the community.


Will Twitter Make Us Money?


“I really believed that I’d be hitting up all my friends,” laughs Marybeth Levine.   “I thought that everyone would give me a dollar.” (She does stop to say that a woman in New Zealand sent her five dollars, enough for a pack of on-sale diapers.) “No, it’s not a major funding source,” Mrs. Levine admits.  “It is much more of a connector, to get the word out.”  She goes on to list the numerous connections Twitter has delivered to her fledgling start-up.  She revels in the synchronicity:  An article on Michigan Positive, which led to more press; a promotional spot at the Canton Liberty Festival thanks to an exchange with @cantonfun; a tie-in diaper drive to the @weerevolution trunk show.  Having only begun Detroit Area Diaper Bank in April 2009, Mrs. Levine credits her active Twittering (a whopping 1580 tweets mid-August 2009, or about 395 per month) for many of the in-roads she made on the way to her goal of collecting 30,000 diapers by Thanksgiving 2009.


Zack Wilson sees his Twittering activity purely as a way to strengthen the food bank’s role in Amarillo.  He has a shrewd understanding of Twitter’s influence on the local media and uses his updates strategically.  “I went to college with the reporters and the assignment people.  I know they check their accounts around 3 p.m., or 10-10:30 in the morning, and they have news meetings in between. I pay attention to the media tweeting.”  He also plans ahead in order to stay focused.  “I plan and schedule tweets,” reported Mr. Wilson.   “I have a list of things here on my desk; ideas that I want to push, not only on Twitter, but strategically planned for the media.”


Ms. Schenk agrees with her colleagues:  “I don’t see Facebook or Twitter as a way to raise funds.  I don’t think that is why people are on Facebook or Twitter.  I see [them] most useful to keep Gleaners in front of people, or top of mind when they are thinking about hunger.”


While the engagement expectation may not currently be geared toward making financial donations, the 140-bit chirp can serve as the warning alarm when supplies plummet dangerously low.  “I noticed that there wasn’t any macaroni & cheese in the warehouse,” recalled Ms. Stecyk, who put @yegfoodbank into action.  “People re-tweeted and there was a flurry.  Someone even thanked us for helping her become more engaged in the community.”


Please RT: #yegfoodbank is out of mac & cheese. Please drop off donations to any major grocery store or any city fire hall. #yeg #foodbank10:38 AM Jul 27th




What is the return on investment?


Twitter streams close the feedback loop between organizations and their supporters by providing tangible, real-time results.  “There is more urgency now; people know that there are hard times, but people want to know that they are helping, that there is some light at the end of the tunnel,” observed Mr. Wilson.  “People want to know that their assistance is helping.”


With any endeavor, return on time and investment can loom large, especially in small, nimble organizations. The amount of time spent monitoring and composing Tweets is highly variable and depends on the organization and workload.  Some, like Mrs. Levine, Tweet constantly thanks to her mobile device and does not worry about Twitter fatigue.  Others compare it to email, and spend about three hours a day interspersed throughout their work day (and many, throughout their nights as well).  The role of metrics also differ for each organization.  Some have chosen to ignore metrics, other have set re-tweeting goals, or an ideal number of followers. The San Francisco Food Bank, with their cautious approach, set their first goal at 1,000 followers, which was reached as we spoke for this interview.  “We’ve never used the number of followers to determine ‘success,’” reported Mr. Wilson from his Texas office.  “I’d rather have 500 people who are truly involved in the cause, than 2,000 people who are just doing it because their friends are doing it.”


In Edmonton, the conviction in the need to be on Twitter is so high, that benchmarking isn’t necessary in their view.  Ms. Stecyk follows the motto of a true Twitizen: “If you aren’t on Twitter, you are out of the game.”


More Advice, or What I Learned From Using Twitter (from the experts):


  1. Mistakes happen.  A rush to tweet can lead to mis-information.  If so, look at it like a mis-print in the newspaper and issue an update.
  2. Before you begin, sit down with successful Twitterers and get a lay of the land.  Model your site off of others’ successful sites.
  3. Be aware of your audience  and what is going on in your community.
  4. Be willing to provide advice (provide resources).
  5. Really listen.  Be a really good listener and then act on what you hear.
  6. Make sure you keep your boundaries.  Personal accounts are the place for personal conversations.  Make sure that you are representing your organization, no matter how ‘conversational’ the tone may be.
  7. Communicate genuinely.
  8. Frame new contests or offers as an opportunity for people to get involved and make a choice.  Don’t put a big pressure sale on it.
  9. Follow people who will inspire you.  If you are brand new to twitter, search for key words and find other people who care about your cause.

10.  View it as the most valuable networking tool at your finger tips to get started, get the message out and networking.




@2ndHarvest Prime example of engaging conversation through Twitter and maximizing social media outlets.  Fantastic site design.
@lisa_goddard Thought leader
@kerri_qunell Thought leader
@PoppyPembroke Thought leader
@DADiaperBank One-woman wonder and success story.  who is only using Twitter and Facebook to promote newly-launched diaper bank.
@HungerNoMore Thought leader and conversation platform for #twitterforfood which asks people to skip one meal a month and donate that money to fight hunger.
@TysonFoods Major corporate sponsor of American food banks.
@SFFoodBank Prime example of excellent Twitter conversation
@harvestersorg Wonderful mix of professional and conversational tone.  Fantastic site design as well.
@FoodBank4NYC Great conversation and example of Twitter and Food Banks in a highly urban setting
@hpfoodbank Engages media effectively and example of Twittering in a rural area with small-town feel.
@rfbo Only Twitter account that identifies the author of posts.  Engaging, mixes personal with office happenings.
@yegfoodbank Newly created account already has strong following and an interesting insight to engaging a regional city.
@FeedingAmerica National organization fighting hunger in America.
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